Developing science study skills

Hello, all!

My name is Bryan. I’m new here, having recently decided to face the fact (and the fear) that I really have wanted to go into medicine for 15+ years. I’m currently 35, working full-time as a professional counselor and taking some premed sciences on the side.

My background is in psychology, where the “science” as applied to the client in front of me is largely qualitative and subjective. It has been a quantum leap (although I couldn’t tell you to which subshell) into another dimension to tie my mind down to the quantitative aspects of (most recently) general chemistry, where the concepts are almost entirely mathematically represented. I am capable of the work; however, I am finding that my study skills are lacking in efficiency.

I began to realize this after speaking with my fiance’ recently. My fiance’ is a resident family medicine physician and has been wonderfully supportive of my dream to go to med school. She was watching me work chemistry problems the other night and had a brilliant insight on my study methods. While I was coming up with correct answers after a long time working, she commented that I was going about the process intuitively (perhaps as a behavioral sciences person would), not really systematically applying the “hard rules” that would have led to me to the answers much more efficiently.

At that point, I realized just how great a gulf I have crossed into the quantitative sciences, yet have continued to attempt to apply my intuitive learning style to these sciences. This style has ceased to work for me, especially when under the time pressure of tests.

My question is this: how can I best improve my study skills in these sciences?

I have been counseled by both my fiance’ and a PhD student in the chemistry dep’t,“don’t READ the text; work problems, work problems, work problems.” My older approach was to read every word of the text and try to get my mind around the concepts THEN try to work some problems. Needless to say, this is taking gargantuan amounts of time. But for general chem II? Of course, this is the road to med school; I expect a certain pinch in my schedule due to time spent studying. I just think my actual methods of studying need to be modified. Any thoughts/suggestions? I welcome your feedback. Thanks!


I’m not necessarily sure I agree with /not/ reading the text because that’s how I learn, read the chapter and then work the problems. I would think trying to work the problems without reading any of the chapter the problems are for would be an exercise in frustration.

Maybe don’t read the whole chapter if it takes too long, but try to skim over it and understand the main concepts.

Flash cards are also your best friend for memorization-intensive subjects such as biology and anatomy.

Hmm, what else. Don’t be afraid to ask the teacher or track down a tutor in the science building if you get stuck on something. Trust me when I say it’s a lot less stress to just ask than figure it out on your own. Now if you can figure it out before you get a chance to talk to the teacher or tutor, that’s one thing, but failing all else just ask!

Most science textbooks also have a solutions manual; these are gold. Solutions manuals also might as well be as expensive as gold, so if you can, try to borrow someone’s or go to the science building and see if they have a copy of one you can use while you’re there. Hope it helps!

I’m an intuitive kinda guy as well–Chinese history major, computer programmer (the intuitive kind ).

I would reiterate what others have said–working problem sets over and over will exercise the right muscles to get through the hard science courses. I would think however that long term, you have a tremendous advantage in being able to see past the trees to the forest itself, and this will serve you well with your patients. But, ya gotta get those science courses done first.

Study habits are idiosyncratic, and each person develops his own best practices. What worked for me was to more or less give up on trying to read every word of the textbook, though I find it fascinating, and focus instead on learning the key concepts that the professor actually will test us on. This may mean distilling the lecture down to a bunch of 3x5 cards, making recordings to listen to on the jogging circuit (my personal favorite), writing out organic synthesis mechanisms over and over until it’s as natural as tying your shoelaces (sick, eh?) and so forth.

Don’t worry, you’ll do great. Just work your butt off and don’t forget to enjoy the process. Good luck,

Wow…not sure I agree. I can compartmentalize so well that I can do the math till the cows come home but don’t ask me what it means. So I’m at the other end of the spectrum, I guess. I have to read the text and understand the concepts. The way textbooks are written now and with all the CD/DVD help you can basically pick up the book and learn it on your own.

I would say if you’re spending too much time understanding the minuteau of every concept then back off a bit. Understand the big picture so that you can begin to work the problems…begin working problems and then go back and get the fine details.

I don’t have the answers. I’m learning how to learn as I go. It sucks because it’s really just trial and error.

Oh! Crooz brings up a very good point. Any textbook you buy that comes with a CD, and most do these days, is priceless. I’ve only come across one textbook that had a CD which was utterly useless. CDs are /great/ resources for the textbook, always use them if you can. Especially the ones that have practice tests on them.

I would suggest you change the way you read the textbook. Skim for concepts, and work each practice problem presented in the text as you come to it. Do not read through a practice problem without a pencil in your hand. Ideally do this BEFORE lecture (if you’re not already). Then work the SAME PROBLEMS over and over. I found this DID work the concepts into my head for reasons I do not understand, and more importantly for exam purposes, IT MADE ME MUCH FASTER.

Take all our advice with a grain of salt, and find your own way, of course. But this is what worked for me with math-heavy courses like chem and physics.

Thanks to everyone for the good input. I agree that study styles are highly individual; I think mine will evolve into distilling the important aspects from the text (as Terry mentioned) that underlie the problems in each chapter, then working numerous problems multiple times. I will definitely be working through practice problems in the text as I read. Croooz, I’m like you in the sense that math alone will not teach me the concepts unless I do some background reading. I do have a study guide that accompanies our text as well and plan to lean more heavily on that.

Tim, thanks for reminding me about the value of asking for help; somehow as an adult, a quiet arrogance gets cultivated that we don’t need others’ help as much as we do. It has been a struggle to ask for help as my full-time work schedule often conflicts with office hours of the profs. This fall I plan to go full-time to school and will be backing way off the work schedule, so that should also help. Again, thanks for the feedback! It is a real lifesaver to connect with other folks undertaking this path.

Though my advice will mostly echo the others, I am an intuitive learner myself (English/ writing major). What worked for me in Chem was that I would read the chapter, doing the sample questions as I went (which were embedded in the chapter in our book). As I did this I would learn the rules for working problems, not worrying too much about understanding the theoretical underpinning. Then, I’d do all the problems at the end of the chapter. Usually, as I kept working on them, I would get fast at working them and begin to understand the “why.” If there were questions in my mind after working on the whole chapter’s problems, I would read the relevant part of the text again and try to figure it out. If that didn’t work, I’d ask the professor or somebody smart in my class.

Good luck! It’s an entirely different process doing homework in these math-based science classes than in the humanities courses I was used to, with a steep learning curve. It gets easier, though.

I happened upon this forum b/c I am currently researching using fusionbb for the message board I manage, so if my posting seems irregular for this forum, it is probably b/c I am no longer a pre-med student nor do I have a desire to become one again.

I am replying to your post b/c I am a high school chemistry teacher who can totally empathize with your chemistry challenges. Having said this, there may be some places online that can help you. If you do a search for “chemistry tutor” you may come up with some online companies that have tutors who want to help you. I recommend using a high school chemistry teacher as a tutor because we understand that not everyone automatically thinks like a scientist. After all, I had to teach chemistry to people who had no desire to go to a 4 year college let alone major in science if they did go to one. I had the honor of teaching artists, musicians, lazy kids, and daydreamers. I also had the rare student who got it immediately and could have probably taught me a few things in chemistry.

I am happy to try to help you via email, If you do email me, make sure your subject line does not look like spam. I’ve been ntropi@aol for over 12 years and trust me, I’m on every spam list that exists. By the way, ntropi is entropy misspelled. I am an embodiment of entropy and celebrate its influence on our lives.

The way chemistry is traditionally taught is not intuitive. Trying to understand the concepts is going to be extremely difficult at first. For me, I had to see things for about 3 times before they really made sense. To survive and pass classes, you’ll have to learn the mechanics. The meaning will come with time and more experience unless you can hook up with someone who can actually explain things clearly. For me, there were things that I knew the mechanics of but did not make sense until I took physical chemistry…three years after taking gen chem in college. Philosophically I do not think that this is the right way to maneuver through life, but traditional chemistry in college, and for the most part, traditional science classes in college are very much drill and kill. You shove information into your brain only to vomit it up on an exam a short time later. Personally I have confidence in my opinions b/c I managed to graduate magna cum laude as a bio major and a chem minor. Figuring out how to hoop-jump is part of getting through science classes.

Having said all of this…I recommend you avoid having a tutor who is someone who finds chemistry to be easy. Some of the worst high school chemistry teachers I’ve seen in the classroom are people who have pHd’s in chemistry and were gracing the classroom b/c they wanted to give back to the community. Making money in industry was just not satisfying enough so they were going to bless the ignorant high school community with their knowledge and expertise. Yes these people were brilliant, but unless you were equally brilliant, you would have no freaking clue what they were talking about.

Let me know if I can help you with chem stuff. I really like helping people overcome the chem barrier, as artifical and arrogant as it can be.


Welcome, Bryan (and ntropi as well) :).

I suspect that my study habits are much the same as yours - I’ll spend the bulk of my time assuring that I understand the concept, and the memorization, if at all, comes last. That’s probably why I can explain so many concepts that I can’t even name .

That’s changed somewhat as I’ve been pushing through my post-bacc and taking courses from or with a different perspective.

I’d never really done the flash card thing before, and I’m still not a huge proponent - but I have to admit, it is a good way to practice things like organic chemistry. It’s also convenient to have around, as you can reinforce a few things while in traffic, in line at the store, etc.

I remember speaking with my Genetics prof (now my PI) about how I took exams. He noted that - based on my psych background - I spent time trying to find the exactly correct answer. While that may not seem wrong, it can be inefficient. Instead, I’ve found it best to try to figure out what concept from class we’re being tested on, and give the answer based on that. For undergrad-level multiple choice science exams, that seems to work better than trying to figure out if the wording on answer d is technically correct…

One thing that I like about chemistry is that it can be intuitive. I find that, if I apply my understanding of stability and energy levels, I can generally determine why a reaction proceeds the way it does.

On the flip side is physics; I’m doing well in it, but it’s more of a struggle. I suspect that’s because I have no preconceived notions about how molecules should behave - but a moving tire using static friction, or pulling your arms in to spin faster… those are counterintuitive, at least to me.

My general concept of learning is something like:

1 - learn the rules

2 - memorize the exceptions

3 - apply creatively

This of course requires tweaking for each individual and for each course… I hope it helps.

Ah, one last thing - I’ve found it invaluable to spend office hours with professors. Partly, it allows me to clarify concepts; partly, it helps with LoRs; but mostly - I have an hour to spend basically alone with an expert in genetics, or neurology, or… man, I’d pay for that privilege .

-Adam, feeling like the better I get at studying sciences, the worse my writing becomes